How to Break Your Apartment Lease
Five options for you to end your rental contract before time is up.
You didn’t see it coming when you signed the yearlong lease on your apartment five months ago, but for whatever reason – be it a new job in a different city, money troubles or a dispute with your roommate – you’re looking to move sooner rather than later.
Without a legal basis for doing so, breaking a lease can be difficult. Not only are you attempting to break a binding contract, but many landlords don’t like the prospect of giving up rent they were supposed to receive for a specified amount of time.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. There are multiple ways renters can terminate their lease – it’s simply a matter of documenting conversations and preparing to pay when necessary.
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First and foremost, kindly approaching your landlord to discuss options could make for a much smoother lease termination than you may have expected.
“You’re in sort of a weak position, but it wouldn’t preclude me from going to the landlord and just engaging them in a very amicable basis,” says David Merbaum, an Alpharetta, Georgia-based attorney who specializes in tenant-landlord law.
In many cases, the landlord will offer options that work out best for both sides and also leave both sides as financially whole as possible. Of course, there are likely a few options your landlord will leave out as well.
You can break your apartment lease in the following situations:
- The lease includes an early termination clause.
- You’re active duty military, and are being relocated for work.
- You’re leaving a domestic violence situation, and your state includes laws protecting such victims.
- You find a qualified tenant willing to take over the remainder of the lease.
- Poor conditions make the space uninhabitable and you’re claiming constructive eviction.
- You’re willing to pay rent until the landlord finds a new tenant.
The lease allows it. Before you start panicking about how to get out of your apartment early, go back and read your lease. “The safest method is to check the lease itself,” says Ron Thomas, an attorney specializing in tenant law in Arizona. “A lot of times it will have an early termination clause and … the tenant can exercise that clause to break the lease early.”
Thomas says many clauses in Arizona leases require a 60-day notice and two months’ rent, which is a small price to pay to cancel the contract. In other cases, the clause could require you to continue to pay rent while the landlord looks for a new tenant or have you surrender your security deposit.
If there is no early termination clause, you’ll have to examine additional options.
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You qualify for an easy out. If the lease doesn’t specify, you may be protected from owing money for breaking your lease by law if your situation falls under certain guidelines.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is a federal law that makes it possible for renters who enter active military service while a tenant to break a lease without penalty, as the service will likely relocate them.
In addition, many state laws dictate that a landlord cannot penalize a tenant who is a victim of domestic violence for breaking a lease.
The Landlord-Tenant Act in Washington, for example, provides this protection for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or unlawful harassment. To be relieved of all tenant obligations, the victim must provide his or her landlord with either the order of protection or a report from an official aware of the case, and take action to move out within 90 days of the noted date of the incident, among other details.
Look up your state's landlord-tenant laws to examine other possible lease-breaking scenarios protected by law. Sites like FindLaw.com, Landlordology.com and Nolo.com make it easy to search landlord-tenant laws by state, or you can reach out to a local tenant rights organization, tenant rights attorney or a local office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to speak with someone directly.
You find someone to take your place. An option your landlord might look favorably on is finding a tenant to take over the remainder of your lease. When done correctly, the arrangement works for all parties because a new tenant has the benefit of slightly cheaper rent than the current month’s market rate, and the landlord doesn’t have to spend time and money marketing the space.
To agree, your landlord will likely require the potential new tenant to qualify for the apartment through an application and credit check, as would happen with any new tenant.
“All of it has to be coordinated very carefully with the landlord,” Thomas says.
If it’s permitted where you live, you may also be able to simply sublet the space. However, this means you’re still on the hook for the apartment should the subtenant stop paying or damage the property. That’s not to mention the possibility that illegally subleasing the space could lead to eviction, which can wreak havoc in your rental history for future leases and damage your credit report.
You consider poor conditions to be constructive eviction. If your landlord has been neglecting to properly maintain your home, all residents have the right to vacate a property that is uninhabitable.
Broken toilets, faucets, lack of electricity and unsecured windows or doors can be a danger to your health and safety, and if the landlord does not respond to your requests for repair in a reasonable amount of time, you can claim the conditions constituted as constructive eviction.
“I would never tell anybody to stay there and continue to pay the rent knowing they don’t feel safe,” Merbaum says.
There is a good chance this form of lease termination will take you to court, so be sure all requests for maintenance, notices for intent to vacate and any other communication with your landlord to are well-documented. Dated emails, notes of when phone calls took place and a log of when the landlord appeared for repairs will help argue your case in court.
Because wording on notices and claims of constructive eviction can be tricky, consider hiring an attorney – even if it’s just to help you write the letter to your landlord– to avoid having to owe money on a technicality.
Pay until the space is relet. When all else fails, notify your landlord of your intent to move out and follow through with your plan. Expect to pay at least a few months’ rent, but your landlord will likely find a new tenant for the apartment shortly, which will absolve you of responsibility.
In many states, the landlord is required to attempt to re-rent the space after you’ve moved out. “The landlord still has an obligation to find a tenant in a reasonable amount of time,” Thomas says.
That “reasonable” amount of time is up to a judge’s discretion should there be a dispute that takes you to court, though landlords often see the benefit in marketing the space with a new, higher rent while still having the security blanket of your monthly rent until they find a new tenant.